Peter Matthiessen, who died last spring at the age of 86, had a twinkle, not in his eyes so much as in his whole being. His was a beautiful, upright posture, a gift from years of practicing Zen Buddhism. His posture also spoke a moral code, indicating that life should be not just observed and notated but actively embraced and wielded. In his twinkle lived the passionate joke behind the posture: the joke being that nothing mattered (the zen-master) while everything mattered (the activist environmentalist). Last year, I went to see him at his house on Long Island with a friend. Having picked us up near the train station, at his house he immediately showed us a giant whalebone he had truck-dragged from the beach, propped outside his front door. Come see how we live, he said, bringing us inside. Arranging the visit had been harder than glimpsing a mythical whale; he used no cell phone, no computer, no answering machine. When we entered the house, he pointed out the hobbyist galleon ship which his good friend Kurt Vonnegut had given him, encased in glass, the entry hall’s first sight. And next he wanted to show us framed photos of semi-naked aboriginal Papua New Guinea swordsmen deep into their warfare. Peter had visited those tribesmen in the early 1960s and spoke as if he were still crouching among them. ‘I was right there,’ he said, pointing to a hill behind one spearholder. As we had sensed about him years earlier, his coming up against the edge of life meant life more fully lived: a poisoned spear thrown by a man wearing a loin-gourd might in fact be one of the better ways to die. It happened that around the time of the visit, he’d discovered that he was to die in a different way, and was undergoing treatment for cancer.
Peter remained cheery while my friend and I perched gingerly on a couch, girls all over again. His wife murmured with him in a kitchen from which he extracted glasses of water, replacement for the endless scotch and whiskey that once flowed. Near that couch on that gray day hung photos of him shirtless on the beach with friends like Norman Mailer, Vonnegut, James Salter and always some obscure dark-haired woman gadding about on Long Island or on a boat, the men sticking out their skinny ribcages in the manner of fifties’ photos, back when ads for strongmen still boasted one could kick sand back at a bully. These were hearty livers. Vonnegut died falling down the stairs, Mailer died when his kidneys gave out, and so far the younger Salter and Matthiessen had kicked enough sand back at death to outlive their friends. Once Long Island had been uncool and these lions had chosen it. Matthiessen was of the Upper East Side and Hotchkiss but was one with Long Island potato farmers– with anyone soon to be dispossessed–a lover of Conrad and Dostoyevsky both, a humble servitor in strange dinghies across the world: so his living room proclaimed. Not giving up the struggle to write, not yet. For him there would be no retiring. He was trying to finish a novel. ‘It might kill me,’ he said, wryly. ‘It’s me or it!’
—Edie Meidav is an American novelist whose books include Lola, California, The Far Field: A Novel of Ceylon and Crawl Space. She has been awarded the Kafka Award, a Lannan Fellowship and the Bard Fiction Prize. She teaches in the MFA program at University of Massachusetts Amherst.